John Armstrong

The Film: Design for Telecinema Mural, South Bank

1950

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Not on display

Artist
John Armstrong 1893–1973
Medium
Oil paint on board
Dimensions
Support: 405 × 762 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2014
Reference
T13913

Summary

In 1950 John Armstrong was commissioned to design a mural for the Telecinema building at the Festival of Britain exhibition site on the South Bank in London. The building, designed by Wells Coates (1895–1958), was devoted to the moving image and became the first National Film Theatre. The contract commissioned Armstrong ‘to produce a mural painting measuring 14ft x 7ft (approx) to be placed in the foyer of the Telekinema [sic] covering the subject of “The Film”’ (National Archives, Festival of Britain, Work 25/272). His fee for the work was 400 guineas and his design was approved by Wells Coates and the Festival Design Group in November 1950. The mural was completed in April 1951.

The Film: Design for Telecinema Mural is a preliminary design for the Telecinema mural, executed in 1950 in oil paint on board. As the title suggests, it incorporates vignettes from popular cinema; these are set against architectural features that echo the empty piazzas in the paintings of the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico (1888–1978; see, for example The Uncertainty of the Poet 1913 [Tate T04109]), drawing on the vocabulary of surrealist architecture with which Armstrong had engaged in the 1930s. Armstrong’s cinematic vignettes include lovers on a balcony (in the centre of the composition), a cowboy and galloping horses (to the left of the scene), a car chase (towards the bottom right) and a troupe of dancing girls (in the bottom right corner). The surrealist architectural spaces provide the setting for two further chase scenes: a man pursuing a woman (to the left of centre) and a crowd running after a figure who disappears into a colonnaded arcade (to the right of centre). The composition is bordered at top and bottom by painted intertwined strips of film. The spotlighting of figures and looming shadows evoke cinematic lighting and create a mood of dramatic tension, just as the juxtaposition of vignettes recalls cinematic devices of cutting between scenes. These formal devices show Armstrong drawing on his experience of film sets gained during his work as a costume designer on Alexander Korda’s (1893–1956) films between 1935 and 1939, including the futurist dystopia Things to Come in 1936. An alternative design for the mural includes the same central scenes, but they are flanked on the right by a series of disembodied heads, similar in form to Armstrong’s Two Masks 1928 (Courtauld Institute, London) which the art historian Andrew Lambirth has suggested may have been intended to represent theatrical tragic masks (Lambirth 2013, p.285). In this alternative version the car chase forms the outer edge of the composition, while on the left two riderless horses replace the group of three. The palette of this early version is also lighter, while in the final version the colour is more intense and the lighting more dramatic.

Mural painting was central to Armstrong’s practice. In the 1920s he executed art deco murals for private houses including Samuel Courtauld’s house in Portman Square (1926), and Russell Strauss’s house in Kensington Palace Gardens (1932), where Wells Coates first encountered his work when he remodelled the interiors. In the 1930s Armstrong’s reputation as a mural designer secured him commissions for public buildings such as Shell Mex House, situated on the River Thames in London (1933), and the American Bar in the Royal Hotel Scarborough (1935–6). His commission for the Festival of Britain in 1951 sparked a new series of mural commissions in the 1950s and 1960s, including those for Bristol Council Chamber in 1954–5 and the Royal Marsden Hospital in Surrey in the early 1960s. The majority of Armstrong’s murals have been destroyed, and The Film: Design for Telecinema Mural is one of the few surviving examples of this key aspect of his work; the full-scale mural is presumed to have been destroyed when the Telecinema building was demolished in 1957. The other two surviving examples of Armstrong’s mural art are the murals for Shell Mex House which are in the BP Archive at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, while his ceiling for Bristol Council Chamber remains in situ.

Armstrong saw mural painting as a key aspect of his interest in architectural space which was also expressed in the 1930s through his surrealist paintings of ruined buildings, such as The Open Door 1930 (private collection). His statement for the group Unit One in 1934 (he joined the group in 1933) made links between the exploration of abstract form and his ambitions to create a dialogue between his work and architectural spaces:

To some painters, certainly, it has been possible to absorb the structure of natural objects and create an independent edifice which can be looked at without regard to its surroundings, but to the painter engaged in the study of abstract form, position and relation to environment are all important … As a painter my ideal opportunity is wall space and plenty of it. That is not easy to come by; architecture in this country has been slow in getting going, but it has begun. In the meantime it has only been by observing its tendencies of line and structure, and by sympathy with them that I have been able to express myself.
(Quoted in Herbert Read [ed.], Unit One, London 1934, pp.39–40.)

The juxtaposition of imagined architectural space and dramatic cinematic incident in The Film: Design for Telecinema Mural combines two key aspects of Armstrong’s practice. The work also demonstrates his continued engagement in the 1950s with the site-specific art that he considered so important. It represents both an example of the survival of the imagery of surrealism into the 1950s and of public art engaging with popular culture and moving image technology in the post-war period.

Further reading
Roger Manvell and R. K. Neilson Baxter (eds.), The Cinema 1952, Harmondsworth, Middlesex 1952, reproduced plate facing p.128.
Andrew Lambirth, John Armstrong: The Paintings, London 2009, p.198.
Andrew Lambirth, ‘The Murals of John Armstrong’, in British Murals and Decorative Painting 1920–1960, Rediscoveries and New Interpretations, Bristol 2013, pp.283–5.

Emma Chambers
May 2013

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